INDIANAPOLIS — No coaching staff in the NFL is better than Bill Belichick and his assistants at mixing up the offensive game plan and keeping defenses guessing, and they have the personnel versatility to pull it off.
But Belichick actually tipped his hand last week when asked back in Foxborough about running on the Colts.
"Well, I mean, they're leading the league in negative plays against the run," he said on Wednesday. "They've done a good job."
The Patriots surprisingly didn't run too much in Sunday night's 34-27 win, opting instead for a five-wide, empty-backfield, quick-passing approach.
Most of us expected a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount again, or at least a good mix of thunder and lightning with Blount and Dion Lewis.
The Patriots had run all over the Colts in their previous three meetings, with the Colts' shaky run defense helping turn Blount and Jonas Gray into cult heroes. The Patriots ran for 234 yards and six touchdowns in the 2013 playoffs, 246 yards and four touchdowns last November, and 177 yards and three touchdowns in last January's AFC Championship game.
And it wasn't just the yardage totals in those games — the Patriots continually pounded the football at the Colts, calling more runs than pass plays in each of those wins.
Yet the unpredictable Patriots did it again in Sunday night's win, zagging when we all thought they would zig. Instead of pounding the ball with Blount and an extra offensive lineman, which they did in both games last year, Tom Brady dropped back to pass 39 times and the Patriots only ran it 25 times.
And those numbers were skewed by the fourth-quarter play calling, when the Patriots kept running the ball to bleed the clock. With 11:24 left in the fourth quarter, Brady had dropped back to pass 37 times, and the Patriots had run it only 16.
Instead, the Patriots tried to replicate the running game with a short-passing game, as they have done for much of their first five games this season. In the first half, Brady took 26 snaps in shotgun and eight under center. In the second half it was flipped, with 11 in shotgun and 20 under center.
It's hard to argue with the results — 34 points and a convincing win on the road against a team that was treating this game like its Super Bowl. But take away Blount's 38-yard touchdown scamper, and the Patriots rushed 24 times for 78 yards, 3.2 yards per carry. The Patriots also couldn't grind down the clock and put away the Colts as they have in previous matchups, punting five times in the second half and on each of their final three drives in the fourth quarter.
Blount rushed 16 times for 93 yards (including his impressive touchdown run), and Lewis only rushed four times for 21 yards.
"They couldn't run the ball. They only had one run, and we messed up," said outside linebacker Erik Walden, who had five tackles. "They run when they get a lead, but they ain't a team that's just going to knock you off the ball. They do a good job of capitalizing on your mistakes, but they're not really a smash-mouth team."
Brady, meanwhile, was 23 of 37 for 312 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception that wasn't his fault.
They didn't pound the ball at the Colts as usual, but they hit enough chunk plays in the passing game with four passes of 25-plus yards.
"They do what they have to do to win," Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "We've been having a pretty good run defense, they're going to take what you give them, and that's what they felt would work. They're a great team."
Many of the same faces are still here for both teams — Brady, Belichick, Rob Gronkowski, Andrew Luck, etc. But these are two very different teams than the ones that faced each other last January.
The Colts have an improved run defense with newcomers Kendall Langford, Trent Cole, and rookies David Parry and Henry Anderson. They entered the game allowing 3.8 yards per carry, and held their last opponent, Houston, to 82 rushing yards.
And the Patriots are much different on offense, too, particularly where it matters most for the run game — up front. Only one offensive lineman from the starting five in the AFC Championship game played on Sunday night — Sebastian Vollmer, and he was playing out of position at left tackle thanks to injuries to Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. There was no Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, or Dan Connolly, the guys who pulverized the Colts the last two years. The Patriots had a new right tackle (Cameron Fleming), a new center (rookie David Andrews), and three new guards (Josh Kline and rookies Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason). Fullback James Develin is also gone after breaking his leg in the preseason.
No team in the NFL has used more five-wide, empty-backfield sets this season than the Patriots, and that continued Sunday night.
"They're pretty much predictable," Walden said. "Just got to win your matchups. You know where they're going to run it, just got to get the job done, and we weren't able to do that."
The Colts kept Gronkowski and Julian Edelman relatively quiet (50 receiving yards each), kept the ball out of Lewis's hands (39 total yards on seven touches), and held Blount mostly in check. But the Patriots found a way to win, this time by getting the ball to Danny Amendola, who had a season-high seven catches for 105 yards.
"New year, new team, both teams. The game plan was obviously to come in and try to pass the ball on us," Langford said. "It's the Patriots. You always expect the unexpected with them."